Nebraska, 1919. Two young mixed-race sisters: sullen, stoic, raven haired Oriole (Cristina Raines) and eternally cheerful, naive blonde Acacia (Hilarie Thompson) tend to the day’s chores at their remote prairie farm. The closest town is Bingo, where a gang of six motorcyclists stop by on their way to California. Initial goodwill from the townspeople soon transforms into hostility when the rowdy group causes too much of a ruckus. The gang seek refuge at Oriole and Acacia’s farm. Oriole is suspicious and wants the bikers to leave, but sweet natured Acacia persuades her sister to let them stay. Acacia tends to the group’s wounds, cooks them dinner and shares her stash of ‘Loco-weed’ (marijuana) around while stony-faced Oriole regards the newcomers coldly. Whizzer, their leader (Keith Carradine) explains to the women that they are World War 1 veterans travelling to California where they intend either to become aviation experts or to “star in the movies”. In turn, Acacia reveals that she and Oriole were recently orphaned – their father was a Native American shaman and mother a Swedish immigrant. The girls were taught by their father how to run the farm as well as magical incantations. Later, Giblets (Gary Busey) and Jimbang (Scott Glenn) ridicule the sisters amongst themselves. “They ain’t been to school… they ain’t even American”, scoffs the former. Giblets attempts to rape Acacia but is rescued by Oriole, who covertly casts a spell to snuff out her sister’s attacker in revenge. He is pecked to death by an owl. The strange happenings continue as Oriole continues to work her magic to eliminate her foes. Oriole falls for Whizzer and is jealous of his bitchy girlfriend China (Doria Cook-Nelson). After a catfight, China is reduced to a catatonic nervous wreck and later dies because of Oriole’s hex, which causes her to have hallucinations of being attacked by snakes, mice and enchanted trees. Jimbang’s gun misfires, causing him to shoot himself in the face when he suspects that Oriole is responsible for the misfortunes. Oriole conjures up the demise of her final unwanted guest, the sinister mute Chupo (Robert Walker Jr.), after he shows her evidence he’s found that reveals he knows exactly what is going on. Oriole seductively purrs to Whizzer “I believe you’re ready for me now”, but he’s repulsed and unnerved by the supernatural killings instigated by his new lover. Acacia herself has found companionship in the form of kind hearted Golly (Mike Combs), the youngest member of the gang. Whizzer initially wants to leave the farm, as he fears Oriole’s powers, but changes his mind when Golly decides to stay and start a new life with Acacia. Oriole informs the bemused and befuddled Whizzer that she’s coming along to California with him. As they head off into the plains together, the pair look up and see modern era fighter jet planes flying above them...
Hex is a wonderfully unique and compelling horror/Western/biker combo that epitomises the freewheeling experimental sensibility of the early 1970's; this in turn gives the movie a certain peculiar appeal. The intertwining of various genres and themes, as well as the unconventional use of fades, dissolves and freeze frames and eclectic music score actually works in the film’s favour, creating an off-kilter and truly one of a kind atmosphere. Classic Western tropes are utilised; the Old West location with its harsh landscape, the fictional frontier town of Bingo, the Native American heritage of Oriole and Acacia, and the bikers travelling California to find their fortunes there (a nod to the traditional Western in which the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement). Another common Western theme is the violation of honour codes and subsequent retribution taking place. Oriole wreaks revenge on those who have wronged her, but via witchcraft rather than gun battles. Her honour code revolves around her family – anyone who hurts or insults her blood kin, or herself, must die. The utilisation of witchcraft in the story represents the supernatural, or fantasy, aspect, as does the ambiguous conclusion of the film, when Oriole and Whizzer see fighter jets in the sky. There are a number of possible explanations for this ending. It could be a hallucinational or magic-provoked glimpse into the future. Or from a non-fantasy based interpretation, perhaps it is a symbol of Oriole’s personal growth in that she wants to leave the isolated world of the farm and experience more of life.
Within this Fantasy Western tinged setting, the film also addresses the cultural and spiritual collision between the insular, unworldly daughters of a recently deceased Native American medicine man and Swedish immigrant mother, and a troupe of lawless, nomadic bikers. “They ain’t been to school… they ain’t even American,” is the popular perception of half-breeds Oriole and Acacia, and indeed this is what Giblets snickers to one of his cohorts. (Harland Smith 2010). This ignorance and fear of the ‘other’ breeds hostility on both sides, resulting in disastrous consequences (the subsequent deaths). The only two surviving bikers are those who are more open-minded and accepting towards the two women (Whizzer and Golly).
The presentation of the two central female characters is rather simplistic and clichéd. Oriole, with her jet black hair and olive skin, represents ‘darkness’. Her personality is serious, dominating and as tough as nails. Her occult dabblings also are further evidence of her ‘dark side’. Acacia is porcelain doll-fair and flaxen haired, of course symbolising ‘lightness’. She is pure, innocent, submissive and only ever sees the good in people. Everything about the sisters is polar opposites. Oriole, the ‘bad girl’, dons a men’s air force jacket and unflinchingly taken on traditionally ‘masculine’ chores such as butchering and draining the blood from a pig and chopping wood. Acacia, the ‘good girl’ adores wearing her grandmother’s frilly dresses and prefers to cook, clean and pick loco-weed. Both pair up respectably with their familiars, the brash badass Whizzer, and the meek, gentle Golly. It is arguable that the persona of Oriole is far more ‘1969’ that ‘1919’, though then one questions the filmmakers’ motives at linking such a distinctly feminist character to ‘evil’ and ‘darkness’.
Thus brings up the inevitable question: how did a film with such a mish-mash of genres, subplots and contexts and abrupt shifts in tone get funded by 20th Century Fox? Suffering major financial losses in the wake of several big-budget flops such as Dr. Dolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), the studio decided to try their luck with low-budget independent cinema, noting the runaway successes of Easy Rider (1969) and Two Lane Blacktop (1971). “Hoping for, at best, a sleeper and, at worst, recoupable losses, Fox placed the low budget production in the hands of start-up film director Leo Garen, who had no film industry bona fides to speak of but who had earned acclaim and no small amount of infamy Off-Broadway with controversial productions of plays by Norman Mailer and LeRoi Jones.” (Harland Smith 2015). According to screenwriter Steve Katz, the screenplay, titled Grassland, was written by himself and Garen in a cocaine-fuelled frenzy: “We typed fast and furious. I didn’t see anything getting done...there was a script cobbled together somehow. I can’t say I understand how it got done, nor can I identify my contribution.” After assembling a cast that at the time was the height of counterculture chic (Sissy Spacek auditioned but didn’t make the final cut), filming began in South Dakota in September 1971 on a Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. Fox executives were hardly impressed by reports from the crew that Garen and his actors were spending far more time smoking dope than making progress with the movie. After three months and still no signs of filming wrapping up the executives had had enough and summoned Garen and his crew back to Hollywood, where principal photography could be completed under the watchful eye of the studio. “The studio then seized Grassland, denying Garen final cut, and shelved the film for a year. Fox would ultimately attempt two limited releases of the film, as Grassland in September 1973 (at which point the ads suggested a lighthearted, vaguely druggy experience) and three months later as Hex (with ad copy that brokered in more standard exploitation superlatives). Under either title, the film drew no audience and Fox vaulted it - ultimately dumping Hex onto video cassette in the mid-80s.” (Harland Smith 2015). Lead actress Cristina Raines confirmed in 2014: “There's been so many different versions that they edited of it. Everybody got ahold of it and they were re-editing and re-editing it. I have no idea what it is now.”
Whether Hex’s surreal, dreamlike atmosphere and endearing eccentricities was carefully crafted or a happy drug-induced chopped and changed accident is open to debate. Essentially the film is a product of its time, an era when major studios threw money at young first-time directors in the hope of turning out the next Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces. Initially seen as an unwatchable embarrassment by 20th Century Fox, Hex later resurfaced on the home video market and developed a renewed reputation as an unjustly neglected cult film. (Harland Smith 2015). Hex remains fascinating four decades on as both a wonderfully original entry in the Fantasy Western subgenre, as well as a cinematic time capsule of a bygone era.
Harland Smith, R. 2010, May 7, ‘First in Fear: Native Americans in Horror, Part 1’. Streamline. Retrieved 18 October, 2017, from http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2010/05/07/first-in-fear-native-americans-in-horror-films-pt-1/
Harland Smith, R. 2015, ‘Hex’. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 18 October, 2017, from http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/1118339%7C0/Hex.html
Katz, Steve. Time’s Wallet, Volume 1. Counterpath Press, 2010.
‘Since You’ve Gone: An Interview with Cristina Raines’. Hill Place. Retrieved 19 October, 2017, from http://hillplace.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/since-youve-gone-cristina-raines-interview.html